11 ways busy people make time to exercise

IMG_0547Ask people what they would like to spend more time doing, and exercise comes up a lot. The usual excuse is that we do not have the time. This is the assumption behind all the articles in magazines on “the 14-minute workout that burns fat fast!” or machines that promise an all-over workout in 8 minutes. To be honest, though, I do not think the problem is that people could find 14 minutes, but cannot find 20. I think it is that people do not want to exercise.

Which is fine! If something is not a priority, best to own that truth.

If it is, though, here are my 11 favorite ways for moving things around to make the pieces fit.

1. Don’t think daily. When people decide they want to exercise, they often then talk themselves out of it because there is not a perfect time every single day. I would love to exercise…but I travel for work. I would love to exercise…but I am not the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch daily. I would love to exercise…but I want to get home to see my family at night. All of these may be true, but irrelevant. Exercise does not have to be done at the same time every single day. Instead, use any of these slots once or twice a week and see if that feels more manageable. If you go to the gym one day after work, that is four weekdays you are going straight home, to say nothing of weekends.

2. Double up. To keep exercise from feeling like a total time-suck, combine it with something else you need to do. It is the whole golfing-with-a-client concept, though you can tweak it for modern sensibilities. Go for a run with a client or colleague. Many one-on-one meetings can be turned into walking meetings (plot out a few routes near the office that take common meeting lengths: 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour). Incorporate physical activity into your commute. Not every day, perhaps (see point 1) but if Fridays are casual in your office, maybe that is a better day to walk, or ride the bike, or take mass transit (which often involves brisk walking when you realize you are late for the bus).

3. Make it fun. If you hate spinning, you will not get up at 5:00 A.M. to do spin class. You will for a week or two, and then something will happen (business trip, flu, etc.), and you will not go back. Figure out a form of exercise you like, or if that is not possible, a form you despise least. Treat it as social time and get a group of friends to work out together. Start a competition with someone to keep both of you accountable. Exercise with your spouse to make it a date. Exercise with your children to make it quality time. You don’t have to call it exercise — fun stuff like jumping rope or playing chase in the backyard can count. Find beautiful routes to bike or run. A gorgeous trail through some late spring honeysuckle is more motivating than a basement treadmill. That said, the treadmill can be great if you have a TV in front of it and use the time to watch your favorite shows (or listen to your favorite audiobooks or podcasts on headphones).

4. Something is better than nothing. Much of the research into physical activity is finding that even small amounts are helpful. This is particularly true of certain sorts of exercise (a bit of strength training can go a long way). On really busy days, sometimes I will change into my exercise clothes when a scheduled 30-minute call takes 20 minutes. Then I will sit there working in my exercise clothes until I have a 30-minute open slot somewhere else. Note: this is a great reason to work from home 1-2 days per week if possible. During my winter weekends when I was on solo little kid duty Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I would jump on the treadmill for 20 minutes as soon as the baby went down for a nap (I would let my daughter watch a video during that time). That said…

5. Longer and fewer can work too. If you want to run 15 miles per week, it will take less time to run 5 miles on 3 days vs. 3 miles on 5 days, since there are transaction costs to any activity. There are lots of reasons to exercise, and you may prefer the 5-day option for other reasons, but when I am training for something, I often feel like I spend less time exercising overall, because I do one long run on one weekend morning, and then run fewer days during the week.

6. Shift by half an hour. If you go to bed 30 minutes earlier twice a week, you could wake up 30 minutes earlier those mornings and do a quick 2.5 mile run (outside or on a treadmill) before work. Morning exercise does not have to involve a 5:30 A.M. hour-long spinning class if you do not want it to.

7. Give each parent one weeknight off. If you are co-parenting, each parent can take a night solo, giving the other party time to work late and get to the gym without adding to the babysitting bills. If you are parenting solo, the kids may be convinced to spend an hour once a week in the gym childcare area, particularly if you do something fun (swimming together?) after.

8. Become the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch. I have interviewed a few highly successful people lately who have decided that a major upside of building so much career capital is the ability to walk out at lunch and go to boot camp. Again, it does not have to be daily. If you are not scheduled for certain shifts or paid by the hour, then you can take advantage of downtime during the day to exercise. Twice a week, try moving some email and administrative work to the night time after your kids go to bed, and meet with a trainer during the 90 minutes that frees up.

9. Be a weekend warrior. If you are cannot exercise during the workweek, it is still possible to hit three times per week by exercising Friday after work, Saturday morning, and Sunday evening.

10. Think through your weekends. If weekends involve a lot of kid sports and birthday parties, take a few minutes to plot out the schedule, and where exercise might fit in. If you do not do this, it probably will not occur to you that you should go for a run at 9:00 A.M. Saturday, because the first practice is at 11 A.M. and things get hairy after that. You will dither around all morning, and then have to get in the car at 10:40, and the window will be gone (I speak from experience here).

11. Don’t write off evenings. Especially in late spring, summer, and early fall, an after dinner constitutional with the family is a good way to get in some extra steps. If you put young kids to bed at 8:00 P.M., and go hit the treadmill or weights or a workout video, you can be done by 8:30, giving you 2 solid hours before a 10:30 bedtime (plus, it turns out night time exercise interferes less with falling asleep than people once thought. Exercise helps people sleep better — whenever it is done).

What is your strategy?

25 thoughts on “11 ways busy people make time to exercise

  1. For me it’s remove as many barriers as possible and give it a regular, recurring spot in my calendar. I am loving Orange Theory right now which fits these criteria. I sign up in advance (and pay per class so I’m motivated to get my money’s worth), the class is led by an instructor so I don’t have to think about what to do and they play great music. If I can get myself up and into the car I’ve overcome the hardest part of my workout, in a sense.

  2. As a night owl, I do a lot at night, including exercise. My current strategy is going for runs three nights per week, once the kids are in bed (9:00-9:30 depending on the number of last-minute demands). I take showers at night too. On the days that I don’t run, we try to take a walk or at least play outside after dinner if it’s nice out.

    One other strategy: on workdays, I take a lap around the office every hour or two. It helps me focus and is supposed to be much healthier than just sitting at your desk all day.

  3. I schedule classes online at a barre studio near my home and it becomes an appointment. They have classes that start as late as 7:30. If you cancel within an hour before, they charge you $10 which is a good motivator. Sometimes I have weeks like the last two where anything but work, sleep, eat aren’t happening but outside of those times, I find scheduling the classes helpful.

    1. +1 for barre appointments. I signed up for a cheap month-long trial last summer and got hooked – it was fun but also I really saw results quickly (which was even more fun!) The classes are pricey (so I decided to take on some extra freelance projects to cover the cost) but remembering how much I’m paying also helps me to go at least 3 times per week. Booking into a 530pm class also helps me to focus on getting out the door on time, which makes my afternoons at work more focused. So many wins!
      I think my next challenge is to swap the 20 mins or so I currently use reading social media/news sites before getting out of bed to go for a morning run instead. Maybe thinking ‘not everyday’ will help!

  4. These are all great and very practical tips. Before I was a parent I was all about group fitness, exercise and social time all in one. But now the part that I get hung up on is the transaction costs. I avoid this now by exercising at home, parking far away in the parking lot, taking the stairs, etc. Other than in extreme weather, I try to avoid the gym because it felt wasteful to me to drive to the gym then use a fitness machine.

  5. My biggest hurdle is unpredictability. I’ll have a good gym schedule going and then BAM! an extraordinarily busy week or weeks come along and no exercise gets done.

    My strategy is this: let it go and jump in again! It’s easier for me to get back to the gym if I don’t feel like I’ve failed already because of the break. Letting go of perfectionism oddly makes it easier to overcome the hurdle.

    1. This is absolutely important. I basically have convinced myself that I am AWESOME at exercise and a person that will go when I get the chance. So when I get thrown off for illness/travel/insomnia/work…I just cut myself slack and get back into it. I’ve also become way less all-or-nothing. One day a week, shorter workout, whatever I can do “counts”. For some reason I’ve managed this well for exercise even though I struggle with perfectionism in other areas of life!

  6. As my kids get older, I’m trying to plan to work out while they are in sports practice. I have a friend who signed up his son for swim team at a gym so he could work out during practice. Last night I ran laps around the park while my 5-year-old had soccer practice. Sure, it’s only one night a week so isn’t my entire plan. However, it was one less morning to get up early and beat sitting and mindlessly looking at my phone for much of the practice.

    1. @Karissa – I thought about adding this as a 12th option! Even if you want to watch a chunk of practice, you can often run/walk during half of it. We have done kid activities at the Y because of the ability to put younger kids in the childcare room and then work out during (alas, the existence of younger kids makes some sideline exercise unworkable. Hard to go for a run when you’re running after a toddler at someone else’s baseball game).

  7. I’m a doubler and weekday warrior. I have the more flexible work schedule and telecommute a lot. Since the dog has to be walked, I make a virtue of necessity and take them both out during the day for a long walk and make it a workout for myself.

    It doesn’t matter if they’re not all good workouts, just as long as we get out most days of the week.

  8. Early mornings. Always. If I ever tell myself “oh, I’ll do xyz after work!” … I’m lying! 5am is fine as long as you go to bed by 10.

    1. I am the opposite! If I tell myself I’ll do it in the morning, I am totally, definitely lying. I have to make myself do it in the evening — even though I get up at 5:30, it’s to do not much more than wake up, drink coffee and talk myself into becoming half-human before my children wake.

  9. I’ve learned that if I workout for 15-20 minutes I’m very consistent about it. If I try to workout longer, it seems like a bigger “deal,” and I do it less often (even perhaps when I had the time.)

    My son started playing football and there is a track at the field, so my husband runs during the practices.

    I agree with you, it’s just about figuring out what works and then committing to do it.

  10. I wish I would have read this yesterday. I had a few of those ideas for getting a treadmill run in, but I did not follow through. Wanting to get my exercise in caused extra frustration when my daughter was fighting bedtime. I was having my own adult tantrum because I needed her to go to bed so I could have my own time. I should have just let her sit in the living room while I went to the garage to work out and she probably would have ended up going to bed the same time anyway (when her father got home).
    Thanks for the many great ideas! It is so helpful to think of the options that make it possible instead thinking that there is only one way to do it or it won’t get done- which was the end result of my adult tantrum, : \

  11. This is great, and so timely!! I have a 6 month old and am getting very little exercise, even though I really love running. I just managed to get a morning run in this morning – one of only two runs this month – even though I’ve never been a morning exerciser. It was really short: I only had 15 minutes and my fitness level is not up to a fast run, so I only made 1.5 miles. I think, though, that I’m going to have to adopt an all-of-the-above strategy. (I loved your post a month or two ago about late evening running). Am printing out your list to help with that!!

  12. I work from home, though I have weekly conference calls with my business partners. I always go for a walk during those — a side benefit is I focus much better when I’m not distracted by my computer or the dishwasher.
    Right now, my children have school start times 1.5 hrs apart, so I’ve been using that time to exercise. I just bring the younger one with me. I do find it’s helpful for me to have a basic schedule, to eliminate decision making in the mornings and make it easier to be ready to go (packing the gym bag for swimming, for example). I’ll have to figure something new out this summer and next school year, though.

  13. Along the lines of #4: on days I really don’t feel like exercising, I like to tell myself I only have to do it for five minutes. It sounds so easy I can’t really say no, yet I don’t think I’ve ever quit after five minutes. Getting going is the hardest part for me. (On really hard days, I tell myself I just have to get dressed and put my sneakers on…)

  14. “stacking” my life: I don’t like the term multitasking, but when I take walks, I always do it with my two oldest boys (baby in arms, 3-year-old in stroller). It’s a time for deep philosophical chats! Plus, my 15-year-old son literally nags me until me do it. He’s persistent and I’m tired, but he motivates me. He enjoys that time so I get my exercise in.

  15. Great points made by others (e.g. exercise during practice), and I’d note that even if you DO work in an office it can be possible to slip into (or wear) some of your exercise clothes while at work, e.g. shorts under a skirt (or latex shorts under pants, even). Because yes, transaction costs matter.

  16. I really needed this, because really, exercise ISN’T a priority for me and I hate it. (But I’m always glad I did it.) The tip about doing just 15 minutes got me going this morning. I have a 7am conference call 3 days a week and 15 min is totally do-able between waking up and taking that call, now that I’ve fallen off the 5:30am wakeup wagon 🙂

  17. Also started going to the gym during lunch, I’m very fortunate that my office has a very small gym (for a small monthly fee, cheaper than a normal gym) and it has nice facilities plus awesome classes EVERY day! They are different every day and very motivating. My boss started going and making it a priority and now I have too. I have to work a little later sometimes to make up not working through lunch but my eating habits have changed as well. The benefits completely out weigh the negatives (which is only that I feel like I have to work late). My confidence is super high. And I’ve always hated exercise. Now I look forward to that break in the middle of a stressful work day.

  18. Laura, My baby is just 7 and half month’s old and week earlier I have started my workout. having this post with all these tips is simply great and my most favorite point out of this post is 4th one “Something is better than nothing”. Literally, you nailed it, girl, you have done a great favor via compiling all this info at one place. Thanks, Love 🙂

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